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Writing productivity tip: Focus sessions

by Tom Johnson on Jul 12, 2020 •
categories: writing

I'm trying out a new writing productivity tip that seems to be working fairly well for me: focus sessions. A writing focus session is a one-hour session focused on a writing task. I made a goal last week of doing four writing focus sessions (at work) each day. I figured I should at least be able to devote half of my work day as a professional technical writer doing writing. This technique has boosted my writing productivity recently.

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Session length

I found that four hours, divided into one-hour sessions, is about perfect, and it keeps me much more on track. Ideally, for each focus session, I should turn off email and chat clients for the duration of the focus session. If I really want to focus and get in the zone, I’ll sometimes do that. However, I tend to leave email and chat on. If I find myself getting drawn into some other task, I just stop the session timer. The presence of the timer reminds me of my task and helps me focus even if I’m temporarily pulled over into other threads and errands.

Timer software

I use a macOS app called Focus - Time Management for my timer. It works fairly well, but there are dozens of other timers to choose from, including non-app timers as well (e.g., a stopwatch). However, the computer app works well because it appears on my screen in a more prominent way. When I see it counting down, it reminds me to stay on task. It also lets me customize the duration and number of the focus sessions.

Focus Timer

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What counts as writing

I consider writing to include any activity geared towards finishing a writing task. This could involve tasks such as reading design documents, interfacing with engineers, experimenting with a sample app, or even going through an e-learning course to learn more about some essential aspect related to the feature you’re documenting. As long as these supporting activities are necessary for you to complete a particular writing task, they should be considered part of the writing process. (Otherwise, writing is basically typing.)

What wouldn’t be considered “writing”? Some examples might be calendar planning, general meetings, internal team documentation, reviewing and responding to email, attending standups, reviewing candidate writing samples, renewing software licenses, fixing computer issues, conducting peer reviews, adding to the style guide, and such. Exactly what is and isn’t writing isn’t always clear, but the gist of this technique is that the task should be necessary for you to complete the specific writing task. If the meeting, email, and peer reviews are all focused on the writing task, then I would consider that writing.

Keeping glue tasks in check

One reason I like the four-hour time is that it helps keep time spent on “glue tasks” in check. For more about glue, see Being glue by Tanya Reilly. Tanya describes how engineers, who are usually expected to write code, are often derailed into many supporting non-coding tasks that are important but for which they receive little recognition. These tasks are glue in that they hold a team together, but glue alone doesn’t seem all that exciting. Some sample glue tasks are as follows:

  • Setting up team meetings
  • Establishing coding standards
  • Improving team processes
  • Mentoring & coaching
  • Improving onboarding

Tanya found she was excellent at doing these glue tasks, but they detracted from her coding time. Her calendar started to fill up with glue:

Too busy to code

With a calendar like this, how do you find time to code? And if you don’t have significant code that you’re pushing out, how are you valued, recognized, and promoted?

Her advice is that if these glue tasks count towards your promotion or otherwise fit into your career trajectory, great, keep doing them. But if spending time on glue tasks removes your time from coding, and all management cares about is the code you push out, then consider cutting back on glue.

I think that focusing half my day on writing tasks helps me keep an appropriate balance between important tasks versus glue tasks. (Also, this whole metaphor about glue being potentially less important assumes your role is an individual contributor rather than a manager. Many of the more promotion-worthy tasks ironically tend to require non-writing projects, but this discussion is veering off into another direction. Let’s go back to focus sessions.)

Other concerns become smaller

I noticed that if I can knock out a lot of writing tasks, other issues no longer become issues. For example, I might not need to spend extra meetings trying to prioritize my project load, push out timelines, decide where to cut corners, respond to email crises about the status of docs, and such.

Also, many times writing tasks take less time than I think. I often have doc tasks that I procrastinate and push off, but when I finally sit down to do them, the task only takes a couple of hours. Afterwards, I think, why did I wait so long to do this? It wasn’t so bad.

It’s like staring at the weeds in yard. I’ve been looking at the weeds for several weeks now, procrastinating the work and pushing it off, and feeling embarrassed by the state of my lawn. Yesterday I finally went out there to weed it, and after a couple of hours, I had mostly cut down the jungle. Writing is often like that — a lot of build-up for a task that ultimately doesn’t take that long.

Do you have any writing productivity tips? If so, feel free to share them below. Also note that this technique about focus sessions ties into a larger technique called the Pomodoro Technique. If you haven’t heard of this technique, check it out sometime. It’s a good way to break up a tedious task into more approachable chunks.


The following is a machine-generated transcript of the podcast. Expect typos, misspellings, and other inaccuracies from the actual speech.

[00:00:00] Hi, you're listening to, I'd rather be I'm Tom Johnson. And today I have a quick productivity tip. This is something that I was trying out last week and the week before. And I've noticed that it actually works quite well. Um, and productivity is one of these topics I like to return to on my blog again and again.

[00:00:24] And, uh, I'm not going to belabor the point here. The tip is simple. Uh, Set a timer for four hours, essentially broken up into one hour increments and within each hour increment focus on some writing task. And when you. Uh, get distracted or have to attend to an email or some other tasks such as a meeting, stop the timer.

[00:00:51] And when you return to the writing task, start the timer again. Now I've got up here, a nice little app that a Mac app called focus, but there are a million of these little timer apps. I mean, really. Just a timer app will do, but this one is kind of cool. Um, you can set how many sessions you want and I've said, and how long each session should be.

[00:01:14] So I've set four sessions, uh, each for 60 minutes. I mean, I don't know why 60 minutes, why not just one, four hour session, but it seems a little bit more manageable this way. And, uh, yeah, I'll, I'll pick out a writing task, say, Hey, we've got this documentation task. And as soon as that timer is going, so I come focusing on it.

[00:01:35] Now this actually gets into another question. His, what exactly does it mean to be writing? Because, uh, assuming that you're, you've got this timer going and I'm, and I'm writing. What happens if I hit a roadblock and I don't have certain information, maybe I need to set up a meeting with engineers to get it.

[00:01:58] Or maybe I've written something. It's time to review what I've written with the engineers. Um, or maybe it's something I have to learn. Maybe I came across a new concept and all of a sudden I'm like, man, I've got to figure out what this means. Right. So, um, At that point, are you still writing, you know, if you're not heads down typing, right.

[00:02:23] But you're still gathering information for that task, I would say. Yes, of course. Um, this is all part of the writing process. I think, uh, you know, A lot of people try to reduce writing to just like actually typing, which, uh, uh, doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Right. So as long as you're researching, you're gathering information, you're interviewing, you're interfacing with engineers, even if you're set up a meeting to meet with engineers, to ask them questions so that you can get unblocked for whatever you're writing.

[00:02:54] I think that's writing it's part of the information process. Anyway, um, this timer. It's so dead simple, but it works because it's so easy to get distracted. There's a, you know, instant message through whatever client you have a, we use chimes. So people are chiming me all the time, and then you get emails that you have to respond to and meetings and, you know, uh, it seems kind of crazy that only four hours on my day to day would be.

[00:03:28] Dedicated to writing, you know, what happens to the other four hours? And I started tracking them. I was like, let me keep an actual log to see what exactly I'm doing with all this non-writing time. And some of these tasks, uh, some of these tasks were. Checking email, uh, reviewing writing samples from candidates, reviewing project plans, uh, reviewing meeting with my manager for a one-on-one, uh, responding to email about whether certain projects are on my radar.

[00:04:05] If I'm aware of them getting files from developers, for testing, uh, creating an internal center of excellence type site, uh, listening in on. Stand ups and participating in standups, I'm doing a doc calendar, you know, shuffling, who's gonna tackle which projects sending field engineers links to things now like it's kind of endless.

[00:04:30] Um, and all these tasks, tasks are important. I'm not saying they're not important, but unless I can just kind of focus in on one specific writing task and sort of have a timer that. Pulls me back to it and reminds me that yeah, you're, you're supposed to be writing, you know, not attending to all this, um, secondary stuff.

[00:04:54] It's really helpful. Like it works. And, and I had this sort of epiphany last [00:05:00] last week where, because I was able to get so much done, uh, using this method, even though I had all these. Projects on my plate, just like tons of stuffed dumped, dumped on my plate. And I was like, usually I would feel really overwhelmed.

[00:05:16] Well, not really overwhelmed, but you know, the sense of stress and like, Oh, better break out the calendar and plan it out. But this time I was thinking, you know, what if I just hit four hours a day working on this stuff, I'm going to chew through it, like in no time and all the stress kind of evaporated now.

[00:05:36] This is still early in my experiment. So maybe I'm just naive and maybe this is yet another productivity tip that will, you know, uh, fail or fall by the wayside. But I mean, I strongly value writing. I really like writing, even though I'm recording a video cast right now. Um, I really like writing. So, uh, I guess internally, I also have motivation to follow this writing timer.

[00:06:00] Um, Yeah. So it's a quick tip now. Uh, if you're on a Mac, this focus app is pretty good, but there's probably 20 different timer apps. There's a larger technique called the Pomodoro technique, which also works well. It says just a Pomodoro, I believe is Italian for tomato, refers to the tomato timer where you'd set 20 minute timer.

[00:06:22] You know, the little thing that you twist and it ticks down well, um, No. The idea is that you, you have these focus sessions where you radically, you block out all distractions. So if you really wanted to get serious, you could set a timer for an hour and shut down your email and your instant message client and not attend any meetings.

[00:06:42] Right. And so, um, yeah, I mean, if you're, if you're heads down on some task, uh, that's definitely a strategy that you probably want to follow. You know, if it's really important. On the other hand though, I kinda like to make myself accessible, especially when engineers ping me or I just want to be able to, uh, interact with people in the moment that they needed information or that I need information from them because.

[00:07:06] I really want to interact with them. So at any rate, if it gets too crazy, yeah. I shut this down. Sometimes I shut down my email for an hour and go back online and I've got like 20 messages and things are falling apart and it's like, Oh my gosh. But, uh, anyway, give this tip a try if you want, if you're into this.

[00:07:25] Um, and I'm interested to learn productivity tips that you have for writing. You know, uh, this productivity tip is basically just to do the writing. It's not any secret hack, uh, but this app definitely helps you keep on focus. Uh, if you like video casts, let me know. I'm just sort of experimenting with this and I'm thinking about doing them more, but, um, I'm not really a video person.

[00:07:51] I'm not photogenic. I'm not very articulate and in, uh, uh, video casts like this, but maybe it's something I can work on and get better at. You can follow my blog at I'd rather be And again, my name is Tom Johnson. Thanks.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation if you're looking for more info about that. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me. Finally, note that the opinions I express on my blog are my own points of view, not that of my employer.